For three long February nights in 1945, some 1,100 Allied Forces aircraft dropped more than 3,000 tons of munitions onto the city Dresden, creating a swirling firestorm that had the force of a hurricane. For eight nights the burning glow could be seen more than 160 km away. And when it subsided, the city’s core had been reduced to 15 sq km of smoldering rubble. The story is retold often, largely because it is what makes Dresden’s renaissance so remarkable — few other cities have undergone, and are still embracing, such radical transformation.
Located on a graceful bend of the Elbe River, Dresden was a quiet market centre and Slavic fishing village. And then silver mining changed its stature. By the time Augustus II (nicknamed August the Strong) came to power in 1694, not only was Dresden the capital of Saxony but through his vast expenditures, it was to become a showcase of Baroque architectural flamboyance. This “Florence on the Elbe”, however, was all but virtually annihilated that week in 1945.
Dresden’s resurrection has been hard-earned and slow to emerge. As part of new East Germany, the economic constraints of Communist rule stalled any relevant reconstruction, and prevailing ideology had little use for what was seen as bourgeois relics. Most of the bombed-out structures were razed to make way for the future: boulevards broad enough for military parades, a communal square for mass celebrations, and boxy modern architecture that was proclaimed to ‘mirror the historic victory of the working class’. So when Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain lifted, Dresden set out to recover its vanished grandeur.
Today, Dresden is considered one of Germany’s most important art centres, and is an intriguing mix of Baroque, Communist and modern architecture, each marking an important era of the city’s heritage.
It starts with the Right Bank, the city’s cool, hip and historic quarter which pulsates with nightlife, restaurants, old houses, narrow lanes and secluded courtyards, alongside some of Europe’s finest Renaissance and Baroque buildings. These include the ornamental Semper Opera House, and Zwinger Palace. After 16 years of restoration, the palace now houses the Dresden State Art Collection in 12 different museums where displays include works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titans, among others. The Green Vault Rooms are perhaps, the most hallowed galleries, shared as sumptuous treasure chambers with more than 4,000 masterpieces in gold, amber, and ivory as well as famous Meissen porcelain, gemstone vessels, and elegant bronze statuettes.
Without doubt, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), is the city’s crowning achievement as much for its rebuild as for its impressive symbolism of international reconciliation; most of the 12-year, CAD$250 million archaeological reconstruction was funded with donations from all over the world. Miraculously, excavation efforts found the 1738 altar mostly intact, as well as the cross that once sat atop the dome, crushed and twisted but still recognizable. Today, it stands in the church’s nave and a shiny replacement, donated by British citizens and crafted by the son of one of the pilots who bombarded Dresden at the end of the war, rises from the awe-inspiring dome. In the end, 8,425 original stones, weathered black by decades of exposure, were incorporated into the rebuilt church, close to half the total. Bricks of creamy sandstone from the Dresden Mountains make up the balance which, over the next 50 years, will weather as dark as the originals. Some believe that only then, will the healing of Dresden be complete.
Art and architectural riches aside, a visit to Dresden should include a trip along the Elbe River as it weaves through a countryside peppered with charming villages, castles and palaces, most of which survived the war. Cruise itineraries are numerous so a day-trip might take you to picturesque (14th century) Pillnitz Palace with its magnificent gardens. Or Colditz Castle. Or even the formidable Konigstein, a 9.5 hectare fortress set atop a table mountain amidst the bizarre rock formations of Saxon Switzerland.
If nothing else, head for Dresden’s cable cars. While engineers tend to croon over their technical ingenuity, most of us go for the views: a panorama of the entire city of Dresden, framed by the Elbe winding around from the upper valley. The tourism literature calls this the ‘land of 1,000 castles’, and from this vantage point at least, you feel like the king of one of them.